Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, left, and former Prime Minister Silvio… (Antonio Calanni / Associated…)
ROME — Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been condemned by Jewish groups after he defended fascist dictator Benito Mussolini at an event commemorating victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
Speaking on Sunday on the sidelines of an event in Milan marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Berlusconi also defended the Italian wartime dictator's decision to ally with Adolf Hitler.
"It's difficult now to put yourself in the shoes of people who were making decisions at that time," said Berlusconi, 76, who is campaigning ahead of elections in February.
"Obviously the government of that time, out of fear that German power might lead to complete victory, preferred to ally itself with Hitler's Germany rather than opposing it," he said. "As part of this alliance, there were impositions, including combating and exterminating Jews. The racial laws were the worst fault of Mussolini as a leader, who in so many other ways did well."
In 1938, Mussolini passed laws barring Jews from academia and many professions. After 1943, when Germany occupied parts of the country, more than 7,000 Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps, with many perishing at Auschwitz.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said Saturday that Germany had an "everlasting responsibility" for Nazi crimes, but Berlusconi said Italy "did not have the same responsibility," adding that the country's collusion in the Holocaust was initially "partly unwitting."
Reacting to the three-time prime minister's statement, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, called it "the height of revisionism to try to reinstate an Italian dictator who helped legitimize and prop up Hitler as a 'reincarnated good guy.' "
Berlusconi's comments were described as "disgusting" by Italy's center-left Democratic Party, which is leading the polls ahead of Berlusconi's coalition.
Berlusconi has long faced criticism for gaffes, notably after he joked in 2008 about then-President-elect Obama's "suntan." Later Sunday, he appeared to backtrack on his Mussolini remarks, claiming he had always criticized dictatorships.
But his comments call attention to the number of politicians in his coalition with far-right backgrounds, not least the dictator's granddaughter, Alessandra Mussolini.
His defense of Mussolini may also have been aimed at the many Italians today who defend the dictator's record on infrastructure programs and overlook his racial laws.
According to Renzo Gattegna, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Berlusconi's statement "demonstrates how Italy still struggles, above and beyond the rhetoric, to seriously take stock of its own history and its own responsibilities."
Kington is a special correspondent.